The Gold Coast had graced a corner in downtown Minneapolis for over fifty years. Zach parked his sedan on the street and patted his pocket for his penlight. Leaves crunched beneath his feet as he strode down the sidewalk. October had scented the air with a touch of wood smoke. Behind the restaurant, Zach passed the sheltered patio that gave away the fact the building was a restaurant. Metal tables and chairs huddled along one wall beneath the awning, stored for the season and covered against winter snows. The weathered brick walls and high windows of the adjacent building disguised the eatery. The night urged him to hurry around the corner to the front and enter the building, get into the light, and warm up in front of the restaurant’s enormous wood-burning fireplace.
Inside, dry heat and the rich aromas of grilled steak and fresh bread greeted him. Heavy oak beams supported the ceiling, and tumbled brick walls held the work of local artists, each painting in keeping with the local scenery. Low lighting lent an intimate quality to the atmosphere. He picked out the scent of warm pumpkin and caught an eyeful of a grinning jack-o’-lantern on the hostess stand.
The young woman attending the waiting list looked up, did a double take, and favored him with a too-friendly smile. “Can I help you?”
“I’m meeting someone here. Tanner, party of two?”
Her smile widened. “Tanner? I can help you look for her.”
“Him.” A predatory glint sharpened her gaze. She licked her bottom lip and tossed back her long hair.
Zach grimaced. Never gonna happen, lady.
He edged past her. “I’ll find him. Thanks.” Conversation punctuated by occasional laughter came from the bar. But Dean wouldn’t sit in the bar.
A fire blazed in the central hearth, surrounded by white-clothed tables.
From the hostess stand, Zach picked out Dean’s spiky blond hair. Thank God he’d waited. He sat at a table next to a window, sipping a drink. As Zach made his way through the dining room, he could see his ex-lover’s expression reflected in the pane: downcast eyes and unsmiling face. The stood-up-by-my-date look. Zach knew it well.
Dean looked up as Zach slid into a chair. Dean’s pupils were normal in size, blue eyes clear, his color good. Healthy. A high-wattage grin brightened his face. “Hey, you made it.”
“Yeah. Sorry for the wait.” Zach shrugged out of his trench coat and eyed the tumbler in front of Dean. “Did you order?”
“Just a drink.” Dean tapped on the rim of his glass. “Soda and lime.”
Zach held back a sigh of relief. No need to get into it. Dean was an adult and could make his own decisions.
“I like the scruffy look.” Dean took a sip of the soda. “Goes well with your hair. Kind of like a blond Chuck Norris, but you’re cuter.”
“Thanks. I think.” Zach picked up a menu and squinted at the offerings. Why did they keep it so dark in here?
“Need more light?” Dean pushed the lantern his way.
A pang of bittersweet gratitude twisted in Zach’s stomach. Consideration had always been one of Dean’s best qualities, especially after the accident. That didn’t justify resuming their romance, though.
No point in indulging vanity—thank God he had twenty-twenty vision with glasses. Grimacing, Zach pulled out his reading glasses and shoved the menu under the light. Between the light and the lenses, the text emerged from the shadows. “Know what you’re going to have?”
“Now or later?”
Zach looked up. Dean leaned back in his chair, dipped a finger in his drink, and ran it around the edge of the glass.
With a frown, Zach shook his head. Why couldn’t Dean let it go? They were done. Anything besides friendship was out of the question. Say it. Lay it out in no uncertain terms.
Eyes like blue flames gazed across the table. The tip of Dean’s tongue took a leisurely stroke along his lower lip. “Maybe for dessert, then.”
Just like the old days. Except these days innuendo wouldn’t get Dean where he wanted to go. For a moment, Zach stared. “What are you having for dinner? Here. At the restaurant.”
“Steak smothered in mushrooms. Baked potato slathered with butter and sour cream. Asparagus drenched in hollandaise.” Dean’s lips pressed into a hard line.
“The heart-healthy special, huh?” Zach dropped his gaze to the menu.
“Sometimes I want to indulge my more primitive desires.” The tone had gone remote.
Thank God he’d avoided tacking on “for red meat.” That had been one of Dean’s favorite double entendres. For a moment, the thought of satisfying their mutual desires broke through, flooding Zach’s memory with sensual sights and sounds. Dean’s hands on him, his touch sure and steady.
“Gonna make you feel so good, Zach.
” Zach shivered. Pointless to think about it. The past precluded having anything beyond a platonic relationship. As it was, their continued acquaintance had escaped implosion by the narrowest of margins. Walking the just-friends tightrope wasn’t easy.
A white-aproned waiter took the order for Dean’s cholesterol-laden feast and Zach’s choice of grilled trout with rice and steamed vegetables. Dean watched the server sashay away before flicking his gaze to Zach.
“So. How was your Omaha case?” Neutral tone, neutral expression. Neutral ground.
“It’s over.” Zach pulled off his glasses and stored them in the case. “How’s the hospital?”
“I’m on the kids’ ward. Inpatient psych. A little sad, but new challenges, you know?”
The current nursing assignment seemed to agree with Dean. Good.
“Yeah. You can make a lot of difference for some of them.”
“Hope so.” Dean ran a palm over the gelled spikes of his blond hair.
“Meeting new people?” A touchy subject, but if Zach didn’t push, Dean wouldn’t venture out without him.
“A couple of people at work.” Dean stared at the window. “Is Sands keeping you here for a while?”
“Until I hear otherwise.” Until some other monster surfaced. Zach took a sip of water.
“Still thinking about private practice?”
“Not at the moment.” Liar.
He thought about it every day, with every new case.
“Probably just as well.” Golden eyebrows hiking toward his hairline, Dean continued, “I hear crazy people can’t afford psychiatrists anymore.”
And like that, the ice broke, freeing them to talk and laugh. This was what Zach missed most. Not the sex—the camaraderie. The conversation with someone who knew and accepted him, damage and all.
* * *
Damn rainy weather.
Beck’s left shoulder ached, and he rearranged his holster. If this kept up, he’d need pain meds to sleep tonight. Meanwhile, time to take a break and sneak some ibuprofen. Even if it was a nonsteroidal, couldn’t have the boss thinking he wasn’t 100 percent and ready for the field.
He made for the men’s room. In a stall, he dry-swallowed three of the blue gelcaps, then peed and washed his hands. On the way back to his desk, he stopped at the drinking fountain and gulped water, making sure the pills would dissolve. Twenty minutes, and relief should kick in.
Beck reached his desk and lowered himself into the chair. A pile of reports sat waiting for his attention. Ridiculous. He was a homicide detective, not a secretary. This was a waste of his skills. Field cases waited, infinitely more interesting and requiring a detective’s intuition.
Across the room, Van met his gaze and looked away. Beck spun his chair toward the windows behind him. Sheets of water rippled down the windows, blurring the building across the street.
After the shooting, Beck’s ex-lover had made it clear as still water that there was nothing left between them. At least Van had understood the pressures of the job, the danger, both on the street and in the department. Homicide was a macho division, and the other detectives were unlikely to accept an alternate orientation. He and Van had agreed to keep their relationship under wraps. Had they had a relationship or just been fuck buddies?
Nights in a soft bed, Van’s hot tongue everywhere until Beck squirmed with need. A firm grip on his cock, stroking.
“What would you like tonight?
Heat rushed to his groin. Mind-blowing sex—no doubt about that—but was that all they’d had?
They’d never eaten at a restaurant unless it was out of town. They’d never taken a vacation together. Van liked sun and sand and room service; Beck preferred snow and skiing and grilled steaks at the lodge. And they never stayed over at each other’s places.
Sure didn’t sound like a relationship. Hell, when he’d been lying in the hospital with his shattered shoulder pinned together, wondering if his hand would ever work again, he’d turned to Van expecting emotional support, and his lover had gunned down the only thing Beck had left.
Van had left nothing at Beck’s apartment except travel brochures.
The first time Beck had risked his heart, and he’d gotten blown away for his trouble. Staying secreted in the closet precluded Van paying attention to a disabled boyfriend. “It would look strange if I spent extra time with you,
” Van had said, and he’d been careful not to visit more often than any of the others. At that point, Beck had wished his injuries had been more severe, that the bullet had hit a few inches to the right and down, preempting Van’s assault on Beck’s heart. Death had sounded better than total bereavement.
Anger had overtaken depression in short order. The first thing he’d done after arriving home was deep-six the tropical-vacation brochures littering the kitchen counter.
In the ensuing weeks, Beck had fought through the pain of physical therapy and the loss of the relationship.
As Beck’s psychologist, Jay had helped him work through most of that. And the painful inquiry about the shootings.
“Hey.” Soft brown eyes gazed down at him, wary, not welcoming. The familiar scent of Van’s bay rum aftershave reached Beck, and his stomach clenched.
“Well. What can I do for you, Detective Gates?”
Van plopped a folder on his desk. “Got a computer request that needs your expertise.”
“Don’t think I can help you.” Beck picked up a pen, tapped it on the folder. “I’m not a computer expert.”
Van’s full mouth thinned, lips pressed together. “It’s a search for vehicle license plates. Need it for the murder book.”
Helpless to resist, Beck’s gaze wandered down Van’s chambray-clad torso. The memory of burying his face in Van’s groin set off a twitch in his own.
“Hey, dickhead. I need the information.”
Head in the game, Stryker.
“What’s the case?”
For a moment, Van said nothing, as if he hadn’t heard. Then, “It’s a home invasion.”
It was Beck’s turn to stare. Another one? “When did that happen?”
“A week ago.”
“What’ve you got so far?”
“You’re not on active duty in the field, Stryker. And you’re not part of my investigation.”
Beck barked a laugh. “Same supportive bastard, aren’t you?”
A faint pink materialized high on Van’s cheeks. He opened his mouth, closed it.
Beck waited, twirling the pen.
“Just get the information.” Van turned on his heel. In spite of himself, Beck took a surreptitious look at Van’s ass as he marched back to his desk. Too bad there wasn’t more to him than a hot body.
Across the room, Van’s partner, Katie Coleman, gave him a huge smile. If she were a guy, maybe she’d pique Van’s interest. As it was, she’d be wasting her time. Bats for my team, Coleman.
Beck swung his gaze toward the folder.
Whether Van acknowledged it or not, Beck was part of the investigation now.